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In conversation with Frances Underhill, Programmer For Human Rights Watch Film Festival

Human Rights Watch Film Festival
Mediha (2023); image courtesy of Human Rights Watch Film Festival

The Human Rights Watch Film Festival returns to London for its 28th year, providing a plethora of films from across the world, all pointing towards the fight for human rights. Being such a fundamental issue that pervades throughout society, the programme seeks to exemplify cinema as a great way to understand the plights of people across the world, with this year's festival celebrating "the convergence of art and human rights and highlighting the role of youth in rising up to confront systems of power."

In anticipation of the festival's opening night screening of Mediha at Barbican Cinema this Thursday, we sat down with programmer and Senior Manager of the festival Frances Underhill, to understand the aims of this year's festival and the larger picture of cinema as a form of activism.

How and where did you go about finding these films? 


We have developed a process which is a mix of scouting at film festivals and film events, via grant-making foundations and our network of film professionals who assist us in finding both works-in-progress and completed films that we watch and consider upon recommendation.


What we’re looking for is the potential for impact and access to, or perspective on, a human rights topic, and present films from both new and established international filmmakers. We prioritize filmmaker responsibility and ethics and acknowledge that power dynamics are present whenever a camera is involved. We also take into consideration perspective, voice and gaze, and try to centre the voices that most urgently need to be heard.


Our uniquely rigorous vetting process also includes review by programmatic experts at Human Rights Watch looking out for incorrect or misleading information and being watchful of the safety and informed consent of the film’s participants. Though the festival rules out films that contain unacceptable inaccuracies of fact, we do not bar any films on the basis of a particular point of view. Distinctions of “quality” and “artistic merit” are particularly complex and we continue to attempt to address inherent biases throughout our programming process, with the intention to further develop our practices on this.

Human Rights Watch Film Festival
Summer Qamp (2023); image courtesy of Human Rights Watch Film Festival


The fight for human rights is very urgent and active, particularly at the moment—what objectives did you have for the programme, and how do you think films like these fit into the fight?


We wanted this year’s programme to showcase the courage of individuals standing up for freedom and rights in ways that are meaningful to them. The films we chose spotlight the energy and determination of young people, art and human rights and opposing systems of power - told through the lens of women and girls, queer and trans youth, Indigenous environmental activists and exiled artists.


To highlight some of the films:


In the drama Power Alley we meet Brazilian volleyball player Sofia, 17, on the brink of a future-defining game she has worked tirelessly for. When she discovers her pregnancy, Sofia is forced to seek help in a country where abortion is criminalised in most circumstances, only to become the target of a fundamentalist group determined to stop her at any cost. The film shows the power of ‘chosen family’, as her fiercely loyal teammates rally around her, and delivers a powerful message about true friendship in a situation many women and girls end up having to face alone.


Coconut Head Generation gives front-seat access to the lively, political, and impassioned student Film Club at the University of Ibadan, where students meet weekly and unpack critical issues facing young people in Nigeria today. It touches on core subjects from the raw and rich perspective of young people who are affected by them and whose voices are often excluded from nation-building and emphasizes the entire essence of the film club as a community where fiery debates are sparked with lots of opportunities to gain new insights, learn and unlearn, to improve social consciousness. It also showcases the brilliance and resilience of these students who are coming together despite individual and collective struggles, even in running the film club, to create this space for themselves and reclaim their power in society by leading important conversations.


In our Closing Night film, Summer Qamp, for most of the film, you really don’t hear an adult speak at all -  instead, a platform is given to LGBTQ+ teenagers to talk about their experiences, their lives, how they identify, and the importance for them of having a safe space where they can truly feel themselves. The message of hope the film sends combats feelings of disempowerment and disenchantment that the fight for human rights can sometimes bring.


Human Rights Watch Film Festival
After the Fire (2023); image courtesy of Human Rights Watch Film Festival


This year’s programme highlights the role of young people in confronting systems of power—why is giving power to young people so important when it comes to human rights, do you think?


We believe that young people can bring valuable perspectives to issues affecting their world, and should be empowered to play an active role in helping to shape their own futures and bring their ideas, creativity and energy into human rights. Having the participation of young people in realizing human rights can help broaden and deepen commitments to human rights across generations, and combat risks of disengagement and disillusionment.


Our Opening Night Mediha is about Mediha Alhamad, a teenage Yazidi girl who recently returned from Islamic State (ISIS) captivity, who turns the camera on herself, capturing an astonishing journey as she confronts her past in order to fight for her future. In this unique involvement in the creation of this film, she takes us on her quest for justice by initiating investigations to uncover the truth about the people who caused her family harm and is able to share her story, and perspective with the world – on her terms.


Drama After the Fire shows the burden placed on families in the aftermath of the tragic killing of protagonist Malika’s younger brother by police in a suburb of Strasbourg. It follows her political awakening and legal battle for justice. She must decide whether the battle against authorities who are determined to cover up their crime is worth the cost to her family and wellbeing. By witnessing her struggle we also see her growth and the power she is able to harness in her search for justice.

Human Rights Watch Film Festival London 2024 will take place at Rich Mix and Barbican Cinema from the 14th until the 24th March. To learn more and book tickets go to their website.